Product Development: Are You a Gatekeeper or Keymaster?

December 11, 2016

By Bob Beckmann, Missouri Enterprise Project Manager and Certified Energy Manager

Are you a gatekeeper who monitors and assesses ideas before you let them pass through to the next stage of development…or are you the keymaster, the one who holds all the keys and tells people “get this into production and sell it?” Both approaches can work of course, but the risks associated with option two can be far greater.

To help companies minimize expense and maximize the opportunity for success, the world of product design has a tried and true methodology known as the “Stage Gate Process.”  Not everyone uses this method, but a smart company will use some variation of the concept.  The Stage Gate process divides product design into steps or stages and stops people at gates along the way to ensure the process is still aimed at the right end goals.  To many of you, that may sound kind of formal and “not the way we do things,”  but allow me to elaborate.

First let’s discuss why you are developing something new.  Chances are it is because of a problem.  This could be an internal problem such as a manufacturing challenge.  It could be your customer came to you with an issue and asked you, the expert, to develop a solution.  Or it could be a problem that consumers don’t recognize as an issue, but you want to be the first to market with an innovation that makes life easier for everyone.

So, you have a problem, how do you solve it?  Chances are, you put one or two or twenty folks in a room with a white board and have them brainstorm a solution.  Will it work? Maybe.  Does it solve all the problems? I guess.  Does it cause any more problems? Never thought of that.  But what will you end up with?

Have you ever seen the old cartoon with 6 versions of a child’s swing?  The cartoon shows swings designed by marketing, sales and engineering, then how it was produced and installed…none of which matched what the customer really wanted or needed!    The awful truth is that this is not too far from reality…everyone starts off with a slightly different idea of what the product should be, and when it’s all said and done, most people end up disappointed in the finished product.

Why does this happen so often?  Because once the target specifications have been handed to the design group, the design team takes off and does its thing to get it to production…and then the production folks are told to figure out how to make it, while sales and marketing folks are told to figure out how sell it.    The keymaster has spoken, and this thing is going to market one way or another.

The Stage Gate Process can help you act as the gatekeeper, who protects the company’s interests as the product development process unfolds, making informed decisions to continue with a new product idea or to scrap it.  With Stage Gate, the design process is broken up into small, manageable stages.  At the end of each stage, the company stops and evaluates the development and decides if it is what everyone wants and if it makes sense to continue.  Here’s a summary look at how the process works:

Stage 0 – Idea Discovery
This is where the problem is found.  It could come from anywhere.  The challenge now is to solve the problem the best way possible.  We call this “Stage 0” because so far, you’ve gone nowhere in the product development process.  It’s just an idea.

Stage 1 – Scoping
The first true stage of the process is to do some research to learn if someone has already solved the problem and you just don’t know about it.  This could be as involved as patent searches, or it could mean talking to more tenured people in your organization, or it could just be a simple Google process.

Stage 2 – Build the Business Case
At this point, everyone is involved.  All departments concerned should be at the meetings.  Can sales sell it?  Can marketing promote it?  Can manufacturing make it?  What are the cost targets?  Who is the customer?  This is the time for market research.  Everyone has an equal voice and should be able to blackball the idea.  Like the name suggests, the point of this stage is to look at it from a business standpoint and see if the case holds up to scrutiny.

Stage 3 – Development
Now it’s time for the actual detailed design and development of the new product, including the design of the operations or production process required for eventual full scale production.  In-process meetings with all departments should be held to confirm that questions are being addressed and to ensure the unfolding of the process is staying true to the original concept.

Stage 4 – Testing and Validation
This stage involves tests or trials in the marketplace, laboratory, and/or the plant to verify and validate the proposed new product.  Validation includes developing concepts on the brand/marketing plan, and verifying how things will need to work for production/operations.  This is also your last chance to find and fix flaws before launch.  (You don’t want the customer to find those flaws post-production, after the product hits the field!)

Stage 5 – Launch
It is time to go to market.  The beginning of full-scale operations or production, marketing, and selling.  Time to get the production line up and running.

So, these are the 5 Stages of the product development process, but where are the Gates?  The Gates reside between each Stage, and then again after the Stage 5 launch.  The Gates keep you focused on the end objective, and allow you to assess whether to continue investing time, energy and money on future development.  Remember, if an idea is going to fail, it’s better to fail-fast.  And if an idea is going to succeed in the marketplace, it’s critical to understand all facets of the product along the way, from concept to production to marketing and sales.  The Gates force you, and the organization, to assess as you progress.

Think of the Gates in this process as stop signs.  After each Stage, the team is stopped by a Gate, where all involved parties vote “yes or no” to proceeding to the next Stage.  At each Gate, the team must consider several questions:  Does the problem exist as we originally thought?  Does the product being designed solve the perceived problem?  Can it be manufactured efficiently?  Can it be sold profitably?  Are there any patent infringements?  Are all the “must have” features of the product still in the equation?  The project cannot get through a Gate until it is approved by the group.

“WOW!” you say? – I am sure that at this point, most engineering managers are floored by the prospect that folks in marketing or sales could stop a project from proceeding.  “Don’t they realize this will slow the process?  There are way too many ‘cooks’.  This will end up costing us a fortune!”

To be honest, all those arguments can be true.  But consider this:  With a gatekeeper approach, if a project needs to keep getting reworked due to demands by manufacturing or marketing or sales or purchasing it will never get done.  And that is a good thing.  Imagine a design project that marketing does not want or sales cannot sell or manufacturing cannot make.  Do you think it will be successful or profitable? Not very likely.

Then consider the alternative, the keymaster approach, where the product is designed no matter what.  There is a better than average possibility the product will fail…because it costs too much, or it cannot be made effectively, or because marketing doesn’t promote it, or sales doesn’t sell it.  The Stage Gate Process helps you see and fix these problems along the way, to maximize the opportunity for a successful launch of your product into the marketplace, or to nix an idea that cannot succeed.

I know companies, departments and people hate to admit failure.  But if the problems are found early and addressed, then they can either be fixed or not fixed…and if they can’t be fixed, then wasteful spending on a lost cause can be avoided.  On top of the money, you simply cannot afford to damage the company image by putting a bad product out to market.

As with so many manufacturing processes, it can be difficult for the in-house team to assess objectively, and it’s often a good idea for companies to bring in outside expertise to help them through the new product design process.  Missouri Enterprise has the expertise you need to teach you and your team how to make these processes work, or we can act as your product development specialists helping you manage and design a new product concept from inception to production.  Your local Area Business Manager can help.